Jason Hammel will start today’s potentially-clinching NLDS game, and you know the story of his struggles in the second half this year. Heading into his July 8 start against the Cardinals – a game that would eventually become the Jhonny Peralta Homer Game – Hammel was dominating: through 102.2 innings, Hammel had a 2.89 ERA, a 3.14 FIP, and a 3.29 xFIP. His .256 BABIP was on the low side (he’s at .303 for his career), which suggests there was some good fortune in there, but his LOB rate and FB/HR rate were both very sustainable. Further, his strikeout rate (25.6%) and walk rate (4.4%) were incredible.
And after that July 8 start, from which he departed early with a hamstring injury? Night and day: 5.10 ERA, 4.54 FIP, and batters seemingly knocking him around for at least one inning every start. Interestingly, his xFIP during that stretch was 3.77 – not that much worse than earlier in the year – primarily because his HR/FB rate took off, up to an unsustainably high 16.9% (though perhaps it was lower earlier in the year, in part, because the ball wasn’t flying as well at Wrigley early in the year). He also saw the huge whipsaw in his BABIP, which shot up to .335, again, much higher than his career .303 average. His strikeout rate did decline (22.3%) and his walk rate did rise (7.3%), however, so it wasn’t entirely a matter of bad bounces or fly balls going just far enough.
One thing Hammel will absolutely have to avoid today is the ugly first inning. In 2015, batters are hitting .302/.373/.548 off of Hammel in the first inning, and he gave up at least one run in the first inning in three of his five September starts (he did not, however, allow a first inning run in his one October start).
What we know going into today is that Hammel doesn’t have to throw a perfect game for the Cubs to win. Sure, John Lackey probably won’t give the Cubs a ton, but the bullpen is generally trustworthy and effective behind Hammel. If he can go even four or five strong innings, the Cubs will have a good chance in this one.
We also know that Hammel has it within him to be very, very good. It’s been a while since he’s shown it with consistency, and maybe it’ll take an offseason for him to really get it back. But, for today, maybe he can be just good enough.